No. 6, Spring/Summer 2001
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Peer Reviewed
Paper Competition Winner: Global Fusion 2000

The World in the Screen: The Impact of Character Representativeness, Society Variability, and Presentation on Audiences' Conceptualization of Cross-cultural Media Images

By Alice Hall
University of Missouri-St. Louis

The increasing interconnectedness of the world's economic, political, and social systems have made individuals' perceptions of other national and cultural groups increasingly consequential. More and more of the decisions that individuals and societies make have international ramifications. Although international travel is increasing, many individuals' knowledge of people of other societies is heavily dependent on the mass media. For many, large portions of the world are represented by what is seen on TV and film screens and what is read in the newspapers. Given the mass media's function as a means through which some audiences' come to know what people of specific societies are like, the content of media representations is vitally important. The patterns that appear in the media can help determine the nature of the audiences' beliefs about particular societies.

The premise that media representations structure the perceptions of the audience is fundamental to the work of many scholars who have investigated how peoples from societies in South America, Asia, and Africa are represented in the media of North America and Europe. Media representations are seen as a link in a circular chain. They both reflect and reinforce existing patterns of power. One of the seminal works in this area is Edward Said's 1978 book, Orientalism. Said argues that Western scholars' understandings of the Middle East and India are constructed in ways that support the West's vision of itself and justify Western control of these areas. Other scholars have expanded on Said's work by further investigating mass media portrayals of the Middle East (Nadel, 1997) and by applying similar models to Western portrayals of the cultures of Africa, South and Central America, and East Asia (Torgovnick, 1990; Springer, 1991; Shome, 1996; Heung, 1997). Shohat and Stam (1994), for example, argue that Western media tend to portray people of Africa, Asia, and Central and South America as childlike, instinctual, and close to nature. The suggestion of the irresponsibility of individuals from these regions can be seen to justify the West's attempts to exercise control over these areas of the world. Furthermore, these kinds of portrayals allow for the role of the White, male European or North American as conqueror or sense-maker. The heroic European or North American who saves or rules over peoples of other regions is a common figure in films and adventure novels created in the West but set outside it.

Experimental researchers have found evidence that, at least in certain circumstances, media representations can shape international audiences' perceptions of the societies from which the media come. Most of this work deals with the impact of exported US television programming on perceptions of the United States. Several studies have found exposure to US shows to be associated with perceptions of the United States that concord with the content of American programming. Tan, Li, and Simpson (1986), for example, found that viewership of "Dallas" and "Dynasty" was associated with perceptions of people of the US as materialistic among Taiwanese viewers. In Mexico, viewership of "Dynasty" was related to perceptions of people of the US as individualistic and pleasure-loving, whereas viewing "Dallas was associated with understandings of people of the US as aggressive and cruel. Tan and Suarchavarat (1988), found a similar pattern of results in Thailand, as did Pingree and Hawkins (1981) in Australia, Weimann (1984) in Israel, Willnat, He, and Hao (1996) in Hong Kong, China, and Singapore, Saito (1996) in Japan, and Citipitioglu and Elasmar (1996) in Turkey.

In addition to the society-level impacts of media content patterns that have been explicated by cultural studies scholars, individual viewers' media-influenced perceptions of societies can also shape how members of these societies are treated when they are met face to face. Beliefs about the character of social groups can become cognitive schema that shape what is noticed about newly-encountered members of these groups (Rothbart, Evans, and Fulero, 1979; Cohen, 1981; Gaertner and McLaughlin, 1983; O'Sullivan and Durso, 1984; Devine, 1994; Gilbert and Hixon, 1991; Dovidio, Evans, and Tyler, 1986; Ford, Stangor, and Duan, 1994) and help determine how their actions or behavior are interpreted (Duncan, 1976; Sagar and Schofield, 1980; Darley and Gross, 1983).

However, the processes though which the media shape audiences' perceptions of the societies' represented in the texts are not absolute or uniform. As established by researchers such as Morley (1980), Livingstone (1990), and Liebes and Katz (1990), audiences vary in their understandings and evaluations of the same media text. This study seeks to explore the processes and factors that shape the way the position of the audience and the content of a text interact to shape the way media representations can impact audiences' perceptions of represented societies. It seeks to clarify the mechanisms through which audiences apply what they see in media representations to their understandings of the societies the media represent.

Previous Work
Previous work in intergroup perception has identified several cognitive heuristics that may influence the way audiences learn about societies from the media.

Character representativeness. One of these heuristics is that a group exemplar that is seen as typical of its group is more likely to shape an observer's perceptions of the group as a whole than an exemplar that is seen as atypical. This is perhaps illustrated most clearly by the work on counter-stereotypes. For example, Weber and Crocker (1983) found that a very atypical example had less of an effect on a stereotype's central tendency than several moderately representative ones. Similarly, Johnston and Hewstone (1992) found that counterexamples' influences on perceptions of their groups were predicted by their perceived typicality. In one of the most direct examinations of the effect of the typicality of counterexamples, Wilder, Simon, and Faith (1996) found that when counter-stereotypical examples were like other group members on all but a few attributes, perceptions of the group as a whole were less stereotypical than when counterexamples diverged on many attributes. Kunda and Oleson (1995; 1997) found similar results.

If this pattern holds in regards to media exemplars, it would suggest that audiences' perceptions of the representativeness of the characters help determine the media text's impact. The first goal of this study is to determine whether the attributes of representative media characters are more likely to be applied to viewers' real world understandings than attributes of unrepresentative characters.

Society Variability. A factor that can affect perceptions of a character's representativeness, in turn, is an audience's perception of the variability of the society portrayed in a media text. Variability perceptions are consequential to investigations of media learning because they make individual representatives of the group seem more informative about other members. This suggests that variability perceptions could modify the extent to which a media portrayal's attributes are extrapolated onto its group as a whole. A single example is more likely to inform perceptions of the rest of the group when group members are felt to be relatively invariable. A series of experimental studies supports the notion that the perceived variability of a group shapes the extent to which a single example affects observers' understandings of the group as a whole. Rehder and Hastie (1996) found that observers were less willing to adjust their estimates of the central tendency of a group in response to disconfirming examples when a group was seen as relatively diffuse than when it was seen as homogenous. Park and Hastie (1987) found observers were more likely to generalize from a single example to an entire group if the group was seen as homogenous. Single examples have less of an impact on outsiders' perceptions of the group when the group is seen as highly variable.

Category Structures. This work suggests that the nature of the society with which media characters are associated can impact a text's power to shape audiences' perception of the nature or attributes of that society. However, media characters, like people, are multi-dimensional. Even a brief portrayal offers a myriad of abstract concepts to which the attributes of a specific text may be applied.

Work on category activation in interpersonal environments suggests that priming a specific category structure leads to the greater impact of category understandings on individual members (Hilton and von Hipple, 1996). For example, Beckett and Park (1995) found that gender stereotypes had greater effects on evaluations of individual targets when observers were presented with photos that made the targets' genders more salient. Increased salience of a particular category structure seems to increase the power a single example has on observers' perceptions of the example's category as a whole.

The second goal of this study is to explore whether the activation of a particular category structure affects a media representation's power to shape audiences' evaluations of social groups in a similar way. The activation of a category structure may influence a text's impact on viewer perceptions of the real-world groups defined by that category structure. If a film is viewed in a context that stresses the society of the characters, it may be more likely to impact the viewers' perceptions of society than if another aspect of the characters' identities, such as their gender, social class, or sexual orientation, were highlighted. The activation of particular category structures is likely to affect the perceived variability of the groups defined by those structures, and therefore the impact of specific examples on group understandings. Therefore, the activation of a particular category structure should be associated with perceptions of the representativeness of the characters in reference to those categories. Category structure activation should also be associated with the impact of the characters on real-world perceptions of the group.

Category structures can be activated by the content of the text and by the environment in which it is seen. The importance of the various attributes that define the characters' group memberships is shaped by the nature of the narrative in which they appear and the way the story is presented. For example, the cast of the TV hospital drama "ER" can be sorted in terms of their profession, gender, race, attitude towards HMOs, or a dozen other sets of attributes. The relative salience of these category structures will change across and within episodes. When the nursing staff is on strike, the professional roles of the characters are likely to be very salient. Whether characters are administrators, doctors, or nurses will be closely tied to their attitudes and behavior in these circumstances. When the issue is whether a male doctor acted insensitively when breaking off his romance with a female hospital administrator, gender may become more salient. It may be more strongly correlated with attitude and behavior.

The media materials that surround a specific film or television text may also shape the salience of a particular category structure. The media are not consumed in isolation. Audience members often come to a text after having seen promotional materials or read critical reviews. Although little experimental work has been done on the way these materials shape viewer responses, it is likely that the way a text is presented can shape the way audiences respond to it. Categories of social membership, for example, are more likely to be salient to viewers when a film is presented as being about Taiwan than when the same film is presented as being about family relationships.

An important aspect of the environment in which a film or television program is seen is the promotional and critical materials that surround it. Most of the work on media promotional materials has been done in reference to theatrical films. Survey and interview research indicate that film audiences are heavily exposed to trailers, reviews, and advertising and that these messages influence their decisions to see particular movies (Custen, 1980; Austin, 1989). It is possible that these materials also shape the way a visual media text and the characters within it are conceptualized by cueing or priming specific aspects of the characters' identities.

I investigate these issues through an experimental study. The design of the study is a 2 X 2 manipulation. Half of the participants saw a segment of a film from a society of which they were a member, and half saw a film from a society with which they had no real-world experience. Before seeing the film, half of each of these groups read a summary of the film that was designed to activate category structures of nationality or society membership. After seeing the film segment, the participants were asked to report their evaluations of the film characters, as well as their perceptions of the societies from which the film came. I predicted that, for each film, the representativeness of the characters would predict the degree to which the characters' attributes match those of the characters' source society. The priming summary was designed to activate the social memberships of nationality and society membership. Therefore, those exposed to the prime should see the film society as less variable, and the films' characters as more homogenous than should those who were exposed to the control materials. I also predicted that the representativeness of the characters would be associated with the perceived variability of the society. continued

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Copyright 2001 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
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